The Aviation Fuel of the Future?

A small piece of aviation history in the making at Birmingham Airport. A Thomson Airways’ Boeing 757 receives the 50/50 biofuel/kerosene mix to power its starboard engine en-route to Lanzarote on October 6, 2011. (KEY – Tom Allett)

Tom Allett attended the launch of the UK’s first commercial biofuel flight in October and looks at the wider goals that the industry seeks to achieve.

A small piece of aviation history in the making at Birmingham Airport. A Thomson Airways’ Boeing 757 receives the 50/50 biofuel/kerosene mix to power its starboard engine en-route to Lanzarote on October 6, 2011. (KEY – Tom Allett)

Thomson Airways and Birmingham Airport combined forces to make a little piece of aviation history on October 6 by providing the UK’s first commercial biofuel flight.
The starboard powerplant of a Thomson Airways twin-engined Boeing 757 flight was fuelled with a 50/50 mix of normal Jet A1 fuel and what is described as Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA), which is the waste product from used cooking oil that is converted into aviation fuel.
The use of this HEFA biofuel for jet engines was approved by the international fuel standards body, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) this July and, since biokerosene has similar properties to those of conventional kerosene, it can be used for all aircraft types without any need for modifications to the aircraft or its engines.
Although the Thomson Airways’ flight to Lanzarote with 232 passengers hopefully marks a step towards ‘greener’ flying in the years ahead, everyone involved recognises that there is still much work to be done before biofuels can play a significant part in replacing regular aviation fuel.
Carl Gissing, the airline’s Director of Customer Services, told Airports International that the biofuel used for the inaugural flight cost around five to six times the price of standard aviation fuel, but said Thomson was prepared to “put its money where its mouth is” because the company believes it is the right path to take.  He added: “We are proud to be leading the way with the first commercial biofuel flights and we hope it will make people sit up and take notice.”  He said that he hoped that it would lead to governments and the wider aviation industry investing in the development of biofuels and that the airline had no plans to pass on the extra costs currently involved to its customers.
Thomson’s next biofuel flight was due to take place in mid-November and Thomson says that it will start a series of biofuel-powered flights from Birmingham in 2012.
 
Trials
The consensus of opinion amongst scientists appears to be that aviation is responsible for about 2% of the world’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  Although this is a relatively small amount compared to those produced, for example, by cars or certain types of heavy industry, it is nevertheless incumbent upon us all to do what we can to help preserve our planet’s environment for the generations that follow.  Therefore, with predictions of a doubling of the number of commercial flights over the next 15-20 years, strenuous efforts must – and are being made – to make the industry more energy-conscious.  Along with more efficient engine and aircraft technology, biofuel looks set to be the major contributor towards reducing aircraft emissions.
The Thomson Airways’ sector from Birmingham to Lanzarote was one of the latest in a long series of test flights undertaken by various airlines and aircraft manufacturers stretching back over several years.
To date, Air China, Air New Zealand, Finnair, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, South African Airways, TAM, Thomson Airways, Virgin Atlantic and some military operators have all conducted flights using a percentage of at least one type of synthetic/biofuel to power their aircraft.  As for the aircraft and engine manufacturers, as well as assisting airlines with the process of moving towards using alternative fuels, Airbus (EADS), Boeing and Embraer have also conducted test flights in their own right as part of the industry’s desire to find ways of reducing costs and meeting future environmental demands.
While some of the different synthetic/biofuels used to date appear to be moving forward from the technical point of view, the overall sustainability of biofuels is constantly called into question by some environmentalists, scientists and other interested observers.  There is no doubt that some of the alternative fuel sources that have been suggested during the last few years have failed to measure up in terms of sustainability.
In the case of the Thomson flight from Birmingham, the HEFA it used was originally collected from the kitchens of hotels and restaurants in the US before starting its journey from Texas to the UK via Rotterdam, Holland, for refining.  The fuel arrived at Birmingham by road and was then transferred to a dedicated bowser, purchased by the airport, before being pumped into the aircraft.
While it seems certain that the carbon emissions expended while getting the fuel across the Atlantic Ocean for the trial exceeded those saved by its eventual use, it has to be remembered that this was just a single step on the long road towards achieving a sustainable alternative to traditional aviation fuels.  If there’s no pain, there’s no gain.
However, Jeff Gazzard, from the UK’s Aviation Environment Federation, told me after the Thomson/Birmingham press event:This test flight will give the companies an important insight into any maintenance or engineering issues that may arise, and that is a sensible test programme in my view.”  He then added that he had learnt two important things from the press event: “one, the airline had rejected one type of fuel produced at the US plant, which was made from rendered animal waste, tallow, as being unsustainable because of land use pressures back up the meat production chain and this is a decision I can understand and support.  The second point is that there is not, and never will be, enough waste cooking oil to make even the smallest of dents in aviation’s carbon footprint.”
Mr Gazzard is adamant that it might take at least 20 or 30 years before biofuels could make a significant dent in the industry’s supply needs and suggested that we might see 10% of commercial flights powered by biofuels in “50 years time”.
 
International effort
It is clear that today, no single biofuel provider can hope to provide more than a tiny fraction of the industry’s total fuel needs.  It is going to take a huge international effort to make the biofuel production and delivery dream a reality.
At the moment, the airline that seems to have the lead in terms of its biofuel programme is Germany’s ‘flag carrier’ Lufthansa.
The airline launched the world’s first ever daily series of commercial passenger flights using a biofuel mixture when a six-month programme of four return daily flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt commenced on July 15, 2011.  Like the Thomson flight described earlier, one engine on one of Lufthansa’s Airbus A321s is running on a 50/50 mix of regular fuel and biosynthetic kerosene.  The German national carrier estimates that during the test run, the use of biofuel will reduce CO2 emissions by up to 1,500 tonnes.  At the July launch, Christoph Franz, Chairman and CEO of the Lufthansa Group, said: “Lufthansa is the first airline worldwide to use biofuel in scheduled daily flight operations.  We are thus continuing to steadily implement our proven and successful strategy for sustainability.”  As air transport is the only mode of transport that will remain dependent upon liquid fuels for the foreseeable future, the aviation industry and the research community must develop and test alternatives.
To date, Germany’s Lufthansa has flown more commercial biofuel flights than any other carrier. (Lufthansa)

“Fossil raw materials are finite,” Franz cautioned and added that next to reducing CO2 emissions, the main aim of this long-term operational trial was to find out if using biofuel has any effect upon the maintenance and lifespan of aircraft engines.
Lufthansa says the biosynthetic kerosene it uses is derived from pure biomass (biomass to liquids – BtL) and consists of jatropha, camelina and animal fats.  The airline adds that all of its biofuel procurement originates from a “sustainable supply and production process”.  It states that its suppliers must provide “proof of the sustainability of their processes” and meet the criteria stipulated by the European Parliament and the Council in the Renewable Energy Directive.  Lufthansa says that it guarantees that the production of its biofuel is not in direct competition with food production and that no rainforests are destroyed.  However, the airline’s Director of Communications for Europe, Aage Dünhaupt, says that although the biofuel test programme is running well, “it is too early to say what will happen [after the trial period], as the availability of sustainable biofuel is not that high at the moment.”
The fuel used by Lufthansa is produced by Neste Oil, a Finnish company that the airline describes as being “a successful partner for many years”.
Lufthansa estimates the total cost of running its biofuel project at about €6.6 million (US$9m).  The move is partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.  It awarded €2.5 million (US$3.4m) for the project, which is part of the larger German Government-funded Future Aircraft Research (FAIR) programme, that was set up to examine other issues besides the compatibility of biofuels.  Its remit includes new propulsion and airframe ideas alongside other fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Lufthansa says that its use of biosynthetic kerosene is one element of the “four-pillar climate protection strategy” that it follows with a view to reducing overall CO2 emissions in the air transport sector.  The airline employs a range of different measures to help reduce its carbon emissions, such as its ongoing fleet modernisation, technology enhancements to aircraft and engines, operational procedures such as engine washing or the use of lighter build materials and a better supply chain infrastructure.  Since 1991, Lufthansa believes it has improved its fuel efficiency by over 30%.
 
Manufacturers
From the aircraft manufacturer’s point of view, Airbus says that its alternative fuels roadmap aims to make aviation biofuel a reality by bringing together “stakeholders in a ‘value chain’ to speed up its commercialisation in a socially responsible way.”  Its envisages that it will have an alternative fuel project on every continent by the end of 2012 and believes that by providing technical expertise and the data collected from a series of alternative fuel flights, it was at the forefront of helping to obtain the 50% HEFA biofuel approval in July.
On October 26, over on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Boeing, Embraer and the São Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP) in Brazil announced that they will join forces to collaborate on “long-term aviation biofuels-related research and development,” a move that they say “represents another major step toward the creation of a sustainable aviation biofuels industry in Brazil”.  Brazilian airlines Azul, GOL, TAM and Trip were named as strategic advisors in the programme.
Boeing, Embraer and FAPESP (BE&F) say that they are leading the production of a detailed report outlining the “opportunities and challenges of creating a cost-effective, bio-derived, and sustainable jet-fuel production and distribution industry in Brazil.”  The trio add that their report, which they say will include a technology and sustainability roadmap, will be made public when completed in late 2012.
The forthcoming study will be driven by a series of public workshops with inputs coming from “a range of stakeholders”, and a strategic advisory board, which, BE&F says, will give the project “wide-ranging guidance and institutional support”.  Members taking part in the workshops will include airlines, fuel producers and suppliers, environmental experts, community groups, and government agencies.
If successful, the study will lead to the creation of a sustainable aviation biofuels research centre in Brazil.  Jointly funded by FAPESP and the wider aviation industry, the centre’s goal will be to close the technical, commercial, and sustainability gaps needed to enable the creation of this new aviation fuel supply chain.
“Brazil already has shown global leadership in developing biofuels for ground transportation,” said Donna Hrinak, President of Boeing Brazil.  “Bringing together people from throughout Brazil who possess the leadership and expertise to create new, low-carbon energy sources for aviation is the right thing to do for our industry, for our customers, for Brazil, and for future generations.”
Boeing and Embraer say they are focused on creating sustainable aviation biofuels produced from renewable resources that “do not drive food competition in vulnerable regions by competing with land and water resources.”  Both companies say they are bringing together agricultural interests, academic researchers, environmental experts, refiners and aerospace companies from “around the globe” to establish the local infrastructure needed to develop a “sustainable and economically viable biofuels industry”.
Two days after BE&F’s announcement in Brazil, Boeing, Air China and Chinese and US aviation energy companies conducted China’s first sustainable biofuel flight.
The two-hour flight from Beijing Capital International Airport is claimed to prove the viability of using sustainable aviation biofuel sourced in China.
PetroChina and Honeywell’s UOP, sourced and refined the China-grown, jatropha-based biofuel used for flight aboard a Boeing 747-400 powered by Pratt & Whitney engines.  The biofuel was blended with normal aviation kerosene by the China National Aviation Fuel company, which also fuelled the aircraft.
On the same day, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) and Boeing also announced that they would be working together on further studies on regional biofuel development.  A joint statement said that their study results “will help support future efforts to establish a sustainable aviation biofuels industry in China,” while forming the start of a renewable energy agreement between the US and China.
Air China and Boeing say they are already working on plans for a sustainable biofuel flight between the US and China.
 
Back in Europe…
On October 31, the Norwegian Air Navigation Service Provider and airport operator, Avinor, announced its intention to study the feasibility of starting biofuel production in Norway.
Avinor’s Director of Strategy, Jon Sjølander, said that he believes that the fuel’s potential “is huge.”  The company has stated that it is currently obtaining tenders from “some of the foremost consultant communities” in Norway, which will then be asked to investigate the possibility of producing commercially viable aviation biofuel.  Mr Sjølander acknowledges that from an aero engineering point of view, using biofuel mixes to power aircraft has already been achieved and that now, he sees the “challenges” ahead are all about production and distribution.
The key issues of the Norwegian study will be to decide whether it is best to start up the country’s own biofuel production, or simply import it.  While the study will select what type of biofuel has the “most positive effects” on the environment, Mr Sjølander adds that any production must also be commercially viable.
Avinor’s selecting process to find the required consultants was due to begin as this edition went to press in November – the final report is scheduled to be published at the end of 2012/early 2013.
 
Conclusion
While there appears to be a near-global desire to push forward the production of biofuels, the enormity of the task is just beginning to hit home among those who, like me, hadn’t appreciated just how far the industry is from achieving a sustainable solution.
Whatever the motivation of the aviation industry’s major players in this field – be it reducing costs or saving the planet – this technology is still in its infancy and the job of ensuring its widespread deployment will, realistically, fall to the next generation of workers.